When talking about a subject, particularly a complex subject, it is tempting and often helpful to break the subject down into smaller components and detail each part and then mentally reassemble the parts back into the whole. As a heuristic method it has value. The downside, however, is that some subjects are more than the sum of their parts.
It is normal for theologies to separate the Person of Christ from the Work of Christ. The person of Christ usually referring to such matters as the hypostatic union (the uniting of the divine and human natures in Christ which we wrote about here) and creeds like Chalcedon etc. The work of Christ unusually referring to his work or reconciliation and atonement.
A Christological axiom is that the person and work of Christ can’t be separated. As I understand it what is normally meant is that you can’t understand the work of Christ without understanding his person. If Jesus isn’t both fully man and fully God then the cross is either nonsense or immoral. And likewise you can’t understand the person without understanding what he came to earth to achieve. And this is true.
But what’s misleading about this axiom is that it implies that the person and work of Christ really are two separate thoughts that simply need to be kept near each other, perhaps even next to each other. But that’s not exactly how it is.
The person and work of Christ can’t be separated because they are two different angles of looking at the same thing. They’re like two different lenses used to look at the same reality.
Instead what needs to be done is that the hypostatic mystery needs to be related to the obedience and atoning work of Christ in history. The person and work aren’t two separate thoughts. Rather the hypostatic union and the atoning reconciliation have to be pushed into each other, or thought in to each other.
And so while still upholding that the cross as where the action is – it is the focus and goal and highpoint of the life and work of Christ, where sin, death, devil, judgement are all decisively dealt with – it still needs to affirmed that the incarnation is atoning in itself. The person and work need to be thought into each other. In the incarnation we have God and humanity completely reconciled and united. And yet it is still true that the cross is the highpoint where that reconciliation and atonement takes place and where bears sin and deals with it.
And in the same way historically little significance has been given to the saving significance of the humanity of Christ. For example in Christ humanity is depending on and responding to God in perfect faith and obedience.
This is all very difficult and yet very important. The person and work of Christ cannot be separated because they are two directions in which we look at the one event. They are two vantage points from which we observe the event of Jesus in history.
As we think the person and work of Christ into each other it means that the heart of the incarnation is that it’s the relationship between the Father and the Son which is then translated into our flesh, or which genuinely breaks into our real humanity. And then this relationship, which has been translated into our flesh, becomes both revealing and reconciling. As the Son enters right into our sinful humanity while remaining sinless himself, and begins bearing the sins of the world all the way until the cross. He begins reconciling humans to God right in the incarnation itself as humanity is united with God and brought into the life of the Trinity, and this movement of reconciliation reaches its highpoint at the cross where “It is finished”.
Reconciliation is the hypostatic union at work in propitiation and atonement. Reconciliation requires that one person acts on the side of God towards us and from our side towards God, and that these acts are identical in the person of the mediator. The hypostatic union is more than the grounds of the atonement, or the necessary conditions for the atonement, but rather reconciliation is the hypostatic union in flight.